Church Government

Book Review: The Elder and His Work

Elder DicksonDavid Dickson (1821-1885) served as an elder in his church in Edinburgh, Scotland for over 30 years. That being the case, it gives his book on the office of elder much more weight than its relative brevity (under 100 pages, not counting the Introduction and study questions added by the editors of this edition) might suggest.

The individual chapters are surprisingly short, which makes the book very readable. It is not written in an overly academic fashion and is easily accessible for anyone who might be looking for a basic introduction to this important subject.

Dickson includes chapters on the importance of the office of elder, which is sometimes overlooked in our day.  This is followed by a chapter dealing with the biblical qualifications for the office of elder. There he does not simply go through the lists of qualifications found in 1 Timothy and Titus, but also refers the reader to many of the other New Testament passages that speak of the qualities and qualifications of a good elder. If anything, he boils all of these things down and summarizes them for the reader.

Most of the remaining chapters of the book are devoted to the duties and work of the elder, including such things as visitation (to which he devotes at least two chapters), encouraging family worship among the church’s membership, prayer meetings,  and dealing with cases of church discipline. Considering the relative absence of many of these very things in our churches today, surely we need to recover the biblical picture of the importance of the office of elder, as well as the duties involved.

He finishes the book with very helpful chapters on the elder’s relationship with his minister and session (i.e. fellow elders), and on various “incidents” that the faithful elder may encounter in his ministry, some encouraging, and others quite the contrary. These (like most of the book) are based on his considerable firsthand experience in the field of labor as an elder himself.

The editors of this volume (George Kennedy McFarland & Philip Graham Ryken) served together at 10th Presbyyerian Church, in Philadelphia, PA. The former is a ruling elder and the latter is a teaching elder (i.e. pastor). They added a great deal to this edition by means of the Introduction, the study questions at the end of each chapter (which makes it useful for study in groups, such as elder training), and a good number of footnotes, which serve to explain certain terms, highlight some of the more notable names that Dickson mentions in his quotes or illustrations, etc.

If you are looking for a resource on the subject of elders in the church, this is a very good place to start. It is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but Dickson packs quite a bit of information and insight into this brief primer. If you yourself are currently serving as a ruling elder (or are considering doing so), you may find this to be a very helpful and encouraging book!

You can order a copy of the book for yourself here: The Elder and His Work

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David Dickson on the Importance of the Office of Elder

Elder DicksonIn his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) starts with a chapter called “The Importance of the Eldership.” There he briefly makes his case that the biblical office of elder “is absolutely necessary for a healthy and useful church” (p.26). He writes,

“We need no new machinery in the Christian church. It is all provided ready to our hand in the Presbyterian system. What we need is more motive-power to set it going and keep it going. We need the baptism of the Spirit to fill us elders with love and zeal, that we may labor in our office and that the work of our hands may be established.” (p.26)

How often do we in the church look for “new machinery” (i.e. new programs, gimmicks, etc.) to increase our influence and outreach, while neglecting or overlooking the gifts that Christ has given to His church in the offices which He has ordained (both elder and deacon)?

It is not without reason that one of the primary things that the Apostle Paul tasked Titus with doing in the churches in Crete was to appoint elders. In Titus 1:3 he writes,

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (ESV).

Titus was to put things in order in the churches in Crete. And what was the first thing that came to Paul’s mind when he thought of a church being in good order? Elders. More precisely, a plurality of elders (i.e. more than one elder). It is not too much to say that in Paul’s mind, guided as he was by the Spirit of Christ, a church without elders was not properly in order, biblically-speaking.

Do we think that highly of the office of elder? Do we think of elders as being utterly essential to the life, health, and usefulness of the church? If not, it is a sure indicator that we need to recover the biblical view of the nature, qualifications, and work of the office of elder. If we were to do that, the church would almost certainly be in a much healthier condition, and would be far more useful to the Lord.